WESTERLY —More than 460 tons of trash, mixed household recycling, demolition material and brush was trucked out of the Westerly Transfer Station and taken to the state Central Landfill in Johnston during a recent week in early May.
Town officials are once again wrestling with how to best pay for running the facility, which during the same May 6-11 time frame saw an additional 96 tons of other items such as tires, textiles, mattresses, Freon, light iron, compost and textiles taken out by private vendors who have contracts with the town for the material.
While the transfer station charges residents for bringing certain items to the facility, and commercial haulers pay a tipping fee, the revenue does not meet the expense of paying the staff, keeping the equipment running, and paying the fees charged to the town for dumping material at the state landfill. Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, at a recent Town Council meeting, said the local transfer station is projected to end the fiscal year with a $300,000 deficit.
To cut costs, Rooney is recommending that the number of days the facility is open to residents be reduced from six days per week to five. On Monday, it would be open only to commercial haulers. He estimated that the change would lead to an annual savings of about $125,000 from lower personnel and overtime costs. Under the current system, transfer station employees work Tuesday-Saturday and highway department workers are shifted from their normal duties to run the transfer station on Mondays.
Council President Christopher Duhamel noted that the plan would give highway department workers more time to tend to the roads and other projects.
Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. recommended trying Rooney's plan on an interim basis. "It's for the best interest of the town, to save that kind of money, and to put the manpower where it needs to be. I think your solution is good and I'd like to see us try it for a period of time. There's no other way to figure it out until you do it," he said.
A more radical approach, Rooney said, would be to develop a new system in which private haulers serve the entire town and reduce transfer station operations to two days per week. "Most of the country does it that way. New England does not," said Rooney, who spent most of his professional life as a municipal administrator in Illinois.
Contributing to the cost of running the transfer station is the decline in the international market for recyclable items. Until recently towns that use the Central Landfill, such as Westerly, would receive credit under a profit sharing arrangement for mixed stream household items like bottles, cans and newspapers. Also, if the town met goals set by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp., which runs the Central Landfill, it would receive an annual tipping fee credit for household trash. The profit share and the credit have dried up.
Mike Serra, assistant superintendent of public works, said the town's efforts to recycle or at least to keep the recycled items out of the household waste stream still make sense. "It still reduces costs by reducing the tipping fee," he said.
On a recent morning Serra explained the transfer station's system of using 24 stations for various items. One of the facility's eight workers is assigned to checking the recycling bins to make sure items are put in the proper receptacle.
"There's a lot of different drop-off spots here and that's an effort to reduce the weight of the trash," he said.
The town is obligated under its contract with the recovery corporation to bring recycled items to the Johnston facility despite changes in the market. "Now that there is no profit sharing it becomes more of an expense, but recycling on a whole is cost avoidance because it makes other loads lighter," Serra said.
The council is expected to consider the proposed 2019-20 transfer station budget in the coming weeks. As proposed by the Board of Finance, the budget would increase to $2.475 million from the current $2.44 million. General fund money, in the amount of $330,500 — up from the current $63,000 — would be used to balance the budget for costs not covered by the facility's revenue.